What Is Aegyo And How Can We Kill It? Part One

•April 26, 2010 • 14 Comments

One could reasonably ask the question ‘Why do I want to kill every distinctly Korean concept?’  Fair question.

Anyway, I got to thinking about aegyo (애교) after reading the definition given by James Turnbull:

[a] collection of childish speaking styles, gestures, and mannerisms

James’ intention here is clearly not to give a rigorous definition, but the very act of trying to break down what it means set my gears in motion.

Childish?  I hadn’t thought to apply the word ‘childish’ to the aegyo phenomenon, but obviously that’s my bad.  But rather than pick apart someone else’s off-the-cuff definition of aegyo, it’s only fair that I attempt my own ill-fated definition, so here goes:

Aegyo (애교): affected sweetness

I’ll unpack it a bit for you.  Aegyo is affected, in that it describes conscious performance on the part of the person displaying aegyo.  One does not normally use the term to describe innate features.  A voice does not contain aegyo simply because it sounds like that of a child.  It’s all about what one does with the voice that defines the presence or absence of aegyo.  I choose the word ‘sweetness’ because all of the other choices lack some thing or another.  ‘Charm’ is an obvious possibility, but it is too general.  ‘Affected charm’ would define a very broad category of which aegyo is but a small subset.  Korean-English dictionaries often use the word ‘winsome’, but frankly I doubt many of us have a really clear mental image of what winsomeness entails.  Other words used in dictionaries (lovely, alluring, courtesy, etc.) all fail to capture what aegyo is all about.  ‘Coquettishness’ probably comes closest in sense, but carries a connotation of flirting which is absent from aegyo. The concept of aegyo is independent from the concept of flirting, although the two can and do overlap on occasion.  I also considered and rejected ‘affected weakness’, as although I think this is more accurate than ‘affected sweetness’, the popular understanding of the word ‘weakness’ would overshadow what I’m getting at.

I’ll leave you with that definition of aegyo taking root in your mind and return tomorrow with a discussion of the manifestations of aegyo.  After that I’ll take a look at two different ways of conceptualizing what aegyo is, and finally I’ll explain why we may want to kill aegyo and how to go about doing so.

Part Two


Complete Failure Of The Imagination, College Edition

•April 21, 2010 • Leave a Comment

People are to varying degrees limited by their horizons.  This is why you have had otherwise ordinary people from countries like Ireland and the Philippines who at one time or another flooded throughout the world filling out the working classes of any number of nations.  These were people who saw ordinary people like them travelling the globe, searching far and wide for opportunities.  They weren’t brave explorers by any stretch of the imagination.  They just had a vision of what an ordinary person could do which happened to include ‘diaspora’ in it.

People are limited by their horizons.  There are few people in the modern world who have the potential to have their horizons limited more than suburban children.  The net effect of moving one’s family to the suburbs is to raise one’s children in an environment devoid of anything not deemed essential to the living of a good life.  That means that you leave the burb, make your money elsewhere, bring it back and spend it on the good life.

The unfortunate side-effect of eliminating from one’s environment everything not deemed essential to the living of a good life (including work) is that the children who grow up in this environment end up exposed to the trophy without ever seeing the race.  In the suburbs, the money required to maintain the lifestyle comes from an unseen outside world.  The only exposure that the typical child has with gainful employment is in their interactions with those who sell goods and services and, most frequently, their teachers.

In my home town, where my parents continue to live, the school system is one of the biggest employers around.  When we were young, my classmates and I were told by our teachers that we were set to come of age at a time when most public school teachers would be graying out of the industry, a time ripe with opportunities for enterprising young go-getters like ourselves.  A large percentage of the smartest people I went to school with then are teachers now.  I would without hesitation send my daughter to be educated by all of them, knowing that they are good at their jobs and pure in their intentions.

In fact, when I entered college my initial intention was to become a linguistics professor.  This was, so to speak, my default setting.  After all, since I was a child I was taught that my ‘job’ was to get good grades.  That was what I was good at.  That was the industry that I came up in, so to speak, the education industry, and it only made sense for me to take it to the highest level that I was capable of achieving.

More importantly, I didn’t see any options other than becoming a professor.  I had never really considered it.  Money having never been an issue of primary concern to me (remember my parents were bringing it in from somewhere beyond my horizon) and at that point I have to say I honestly didn’t know the value of the stuff.  I got my linguistics degree, but at some point along the way I realized that, while I enjoy teaching people, I didn’t want to be primarily a teacher.  Ironically, I spent the next several years teaching, but I viewed what I was doing more as assembling a general toolkit of abilities.  I may have been teaching, but what I conceived of myself as doing was basically learning to deal with people.  I still have a long way to go, but I would say that it was time well spent.

The reason I bring this up is because of a conversation that I had with someone yesterday.  I asked her what she was planning to do [with her life] and she told me ‘get a PhD’.  I know what she meant: to get a PhD and then do something academic with it, like teaching or writing, but at that moment it struck me as odd: the PhD was originally conceived of as a credential indicating a certain degree of academic attainment, meant to distinguish those with a certain body of knowledge and expertise from those without.  For the degree to be the goal and the subsequent work to be a post-script is nothing short of a perversion.  It all goes back to my post on vicarious leisure.  The purpose of the degree boiled down to one thing: to prove that the degree could be attained.

Then I thought there might be something else to it.  I remembered that I had started out on the road to advanced graduate studies too, but I had learned that it wasn’t for me relatively early in the game.  A few early wins and I might have managed to hold on to the dream longer, perhaps long enough to get into a graduate linguistics program.  If I had continued to nurse the poorly-laid plan to become a linguistics professor up to that stage, I believe it would have been much more likely that I would have fallen victim to sunk costs bias: I’ve come this far, it would be a shame to quit now!

And then I would have ended up becoming a linguistics professor, and trying to justify that decision to myself forever after.

I’m not saying that all the people who pursue post-graduate studies are putting off the inevitable reckoning with a series of decisions that they put off making when they were self-satisfied high achieving high school students.  What I’m saying is that education, because of its chronological head start, is the one industry most likely to permanently trap those who don’t really belong in it.

The second most likely is entertainment.  The third most likely is sports.

Now I Can Stop Thinking About Korean History, Because I’ve Got It All Figured Out

•April 8, 2010 • 5 Comments

Because I have come up with a metaphor that’s so simplistic and attractive to me that it is guaranteed to color my views of everything I learn from here on out about the Choson period.

Here’s the  story:  I’m a regular guy, insofar as I like to come up with simplistic ways of understanding huge, complex issues about which I know little.  In fact, this urge to fool myself into believing I understand that which I do not is so strong that when I manage to find a metaphor, slogan or glib phrase that sums up an understanding of something that’s catchy enough and makes enough sense on the surface, I find myself unable to think outside this box.

(I would say, as a sidebar, that the most commonly heard glib slogan thrown around when talking about Korea is ‘Neo-Confucianism’.  Whenever you hear anybody talking about the effects or influences of ‘Neo-Confucianism’ on modern Korea it is safe to assume that they don’t know what they are talking about.)

I’ve been reading several books on Korean history for the Seminar in Korean History course I’m taking at Yonsei.  Although I am familiar with the broad outline of the history of Korea, my knowledge is relatively shallow.  Thus the stage is set for an overly simplistic metaphor to sweep in and impose itself on my view of Korean history.

One of the central questions of Korean history is ‘Was the Choson state stagnant?’  This question is important because the first modern historians who looked at Korea, who were Japanese, claimed that Choson was stagnant and that that fact justified their annexation of Korea in the early 20th century.  How does one answer the question of whether Choson was stagnant without much actual knowledge about the period or even a clear idea of what is meant by the word ‘stagnant’ in this context?  The only answer is to use the perfect metaphor.

My classmates suggested several good metaphors that seemed to cover almost everything.  I suggested a spinning top, a lotto machine, one of those cheese graters with the four faces that have different grating surfaces on each face, and a game of volleyball.  I think the best one suggested overall was that of ‘percolation’ rather than progress.  That one explained the bounded social mobility of the Choson period handily, but it failed to explain who Choson failed to modernize with the speed with which Japan did so.

Japan, of course, underwent a series of destabilizing structural changes and a series of different state structures, and various competing parties welcomed a certain degree of modernization in their own interests while Choson appears to most historians to be relatively resistant to change.  I struck upon the idea that perhaps Choson’s ultimate failure actually lies in its striking on a stable, ‘good enough’ structure relatively early.  And then the greatest metaphor ever occurred to me.

The Choson dynasty is ActiveX.

Think about it: Choson established a stable government and social system relatively early on which, regardless of its flaws and merits, did such an adequate job of satisfying most people’s needs that the costs of replacing, overthrowing or improving upon it outweighed the perceived benefits.  People simply worked inside the system, which was good enough not to make any one group both angry enough and powerful enough to pose a threat to its continuing existence.

The Korean government imposed ActiveX as the standard.  It works alright with Internet Explorer.  It’s not secure, but it seems secure enough.  It resists change because it works alright, and more importantly it suits the Financial Supervisory Service and politicians more than it harms online retailers and internet users, who are doing alright despite it.

And that’s the lesson here.  When things are alright, they’re not great.  When things are good enough, there is little incentive to make them better.  Dissatisfaction, the harder to satisfy the better, is what pushes things forward. 

(Watch me pull it all back around now.)

The great flaw of Neo-Confucian statecraft is that it works.  When every meaningful element of society is either satisfied or weakened to the point where its satisfaction is irrelevant, there is no motivating drive on the whole.  The Choson period was full of people striving to improve their own lot in life, and the net effect of it was a whole lot of nothing, not because of a lack of talent, skill or will, but because of a surplus of means of satisfying ambitions which were in the end pretty pointless.  My professor quotes Korean historian Ed Wagner as saying that one thing that never ceases to amaze is the propensity of Koreans to develop means of displaying status, whether it be education, scholarship (not the same thing), luxury goods, real estate, plastic surgery, and on and on.  The problem, as I see it, is that the surfeit of means of satisfying ambitions which were, in the end, essentially worthless leaves a society with nothing but a bunch of accomplished failures.

It also occurs to me that modern Korea may be alright, because a lot of the things that have become modern status symbols, (industry and technology, for example) have a much stronger element of progress than past status symbols like Confucian scholarship, which appears to have been a 500 year dead end and a drain of the best minds on the peninsula.

Putting The Lie To Civilization

•April 6, 2010 • 3 Comments

Korea Old and New: A History, p.129:

Ceramics occupied a special place in Yi dynasty art. In the early period pieces called punch’ong (“powder blue-green”) were produced, like Koryo celadon only with a glaze that had devolved toward an ashy blue-green tone.  This was a transition stage leading to the making of white porcelain (paekcha), a genre that departed from the smoothly curved shapes of Koryo celadon in favor of simpler, warmer lines.  These creations also stood on broader bases, resulting in more practical vessels that give the viewer a sense of sturdy repose.  This Yi dynasty ceramic ware, with its varying shadings of white ranging from pure white to milky to grayish hues, is said to constitute a fitting expression of the character of the yangban literati.


Nowhere but in the world of the antique is it more obvious that many of the things that we, as societies and individuals hold dear, are completely arbitrary.  I read the above passage, head buzzing with a single thought: How many writers removed are the above sentiments from actual knowledge about ceramics.  I think it’s a safe assumption that the many authors of Korea Old and New necessarily know more about Korean history than they do about ceramics, and yet here they are repeating that it ceramic ware of the period ‘is said to consitute a fitting expression of the character of the yangban literati’.  What does this mean, exactly?  The things that they held dear reflect the desires and values that they held?  Really, are you sure?  Furthermore, the slavish description of the varied hues of white in Choson porcelain indicates that this unevenness is something to be desired.  Why?  The only reason that we know that uneven whiteness was something to be desired is because that’s what the people who wanted fine porcelain ended up getting.

Why do we eat T-bone steaks?  Is it because it has a bone in it that is shaped like a T?  If one were to look back on this era and read about a T-bone steak, and in recalling that fine cut of meat they were to lavish attention on the imagery of the meat trisected by a widget of bone, and to attempt to describe the decision to order a T-bone in terms of the mind of the eater, would we accept the argument that the presence of the bone in the meat reflects the innermost essence of the minds of the times?  Perhaps.  But perhaps we would not.

And likewise, when we look at a surviving piece of ceramic ware from the Choson period, and we make ourselves aware of the standards by which the people of the period judged good pottery from bad, how deep should we go?  How much of the continued evolution of pottery from Koryo through the Choson period had anything to do with changing taste itself, and how much of it had to do with the unadorned desire for something new and rare?  Were the styles of the 1980s in any sense better than those of the 1970s?  Did they say something about the minds of the people of the period?  Undoubtedly they did.  Were they ‘a fitting expression of the character’ of the 1980s westerner?  I leave it to you to judge.

What I find most objectionable about passages like the above is that, yes, clearly the yangban of that period saw something in those ceramic designs that appealed to them on a deep level.  But to what extent do the writers of the present understand what it was about the pieces that moved the yangban?  How much of the appeal was aesthetic, and how much of it was simply the appeal of rarity?  People these days will pay more for a 100 year-old mint condition penny, a mass-produced piece of currency, than reason might dictate.  To what extent was this simple motivation to own something rare (and thus valuable) merely for its flawlessness motivating the ceramic collector of the Choson period?



Just A Juxtaposition

•April 5, 2010 • Leave a Comment

From Homer’s Odyssey, Book XVIII:

And when Antinous saw this he was glad, and said: "This is thegoodliest sport that I have seen in this house. These two beggarswould fight; let us haste and match them."And the saying pleased them; and Antinous spake again: "Hear me,ye suitors of the Queen! We have put aside these paunches of thegoats for our supper. Let us agree, then, that whosoever of thesetwo shall prevail, shall have choice of these, that which pleasethhim best, and shall hereafter eat with us, and that no one elseshall sit in his place."

From the creators of Bum Fights:

"Society has a fascination with homeless people, people living on the streets, almost a perverse fascination," Laticia said. "People don’t get a chance to see much of that. We thought it would be exciting to get a glimpse of that kind of life."

Yangbans ‘N’ Things

•March 31, 2010 • 2 Comments

Here’s a quote from Korea Old And New: A History, p. 108:

The sole duty of a yangban was to devote themselves exclusively to the study and self-cultivation that Confucian doctrine holds must underlie the governing of others, and their sole profession was the holding of public office.  Yet they did not serve in the technical posts as medical officers, translator-interpreters,  astronomer-astrologers, accountants, statute law clerks, scribes or government artists, all of which became the virtually hereditary preserve of the chungin (“middle people”) class.  Nor did the yangban perform routine duties of petty clerks and local civil functionaries or of cadre members.  They also were not interested in working in agriculture, manufacture, or commerce, for these were but the occupations of farmers, artisans, and merchants.  Their role instead was to fashion an ideal Confucian polity through the moral cultivation of Choson’s people.

Now the reason I bring this up is because it occurs to me that this impulse to oversee without doing is alive and well in our own culture.  In fact, if you go to any medium-quality management school you are likely to meet any number of people whose ambition in life it is to manage without being able to do.  They’re willing to learn just enough to perhaps hold their own when being reported to, but in fact that’s all they’re comfortable learning.  I have talked to a number of confused youths whose ambition it is in life to ‘be a manager’, without any real understanding of how that happens or what it means.  With the exception of a relatively small core of elite junior executives and lucky shmoes, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that in the real world it’s the rare person who becomes a manager without learning to do something practical.

Nonetheless the dream lives on, to go ‘learn management’ and ‘become a manager’.  Now the major difference between the folks we’ve got running around these days and the yangban were that the yangban actually had a shot at the dream.  Our yangban are just fooling themselves.

지붕뚫고 하이킥 And Class (part 2 of 2)

•March 23, 2010 • 1 Comment

See part 1

I have to say a word here about Jihun, because I found his character extremely interesting.  He is a blank, a difficult to read figure that other people try and fail to understand.  He buys Segyeong a number of gifts, but it is usually implied that he does it out of concern for her extreme poverty rather than with any romantic intention.  When Jeongeum falls asleep in his car he ends up driving her all the way to the East Sea, and she is unable to determine whether he did this on purpose so they could spend time together (he didn’t).  My reaction watching the show was that he was either incredibly insensitive or an incredible tease.  With both girls he would behave in a way that indicated he was interested (e.g. taking Jeongeum out in honor of the first snowfall) and then suddenly and pointedly remark that it was just a coincidence that they happened to be together at that time, or in some other way burst one or both of the girls’ bubbles.  Thinking about it now, it seems likely to me that this was the writer’s intention: he, a rich handsome doctor, was never actually interested in either girl, and he ended up with Jeongeum only after she misread him as interested enough to pursue him.  This would fit in with my overall reading of the show.

Junhyeok, the high school student son, likes Segyeong, the gorgeous housekeeper.  Their relationship centers around his privilege as a student and her inability to go to school.  In a few episodes Segyeong does go to school and gets a taste for what it’s like to be a normal child unburdened by the responsibility of supporting a younger sibling.  She ends up studying as a result of these encounters.  Junhyeok appears to a moderate student (I may be wrong, because I don’t find him to be particularly interesting so I didn’t really pay attention to his stories that much), but Segyeong’s inability to study makes his unwillingness to study look particularly bad.  In the penultimate episode they share a single kiss, which Segyeong appears to give him because she’s leaving forever.  She tells him in the final episode to never mention it again, never think about it, study hard and go to a good school.  It feels like the kiss meant a lot more to him than it did to her, a parting shot, we could say, rather than a meaningful connection between them.  Presumably it was also intended to do what Segyeong said, to make Junhyeok stop daydreaming and get on with his privileged, should-be happy life.

Both Segyeong and Shinae refuse gifts from the rich family, which I think is significant. Jihun the doctor repeatedly buys things for Segyeong the housekeeper, we are led to believe because she is so poor and he is so wealthy.  In a key episode he gives her a phone that he won in a raffle.  The next month he pays her phone bill, and she attempts to pay him back, but he returns the money, explaining that he won’t accept it and that the phone bill was a gift.  Segyeong refuses the gift by knitting him a scarf.  In the end of the episode, Jihun takes Segyeong out to a street market in a scene that would be familiar to any drama watcher as romantic.  Rather than being romantic, however, Jihun does the math.  The phone bill was for 23,000 won, the yarn cost 10,000 won and Segyong’s time was worth about $40,000 won, so he actually owes Segyeong the difference of 27,000 won.  He haggles with the scarf lady to buy Segyeong a red scarf at exactly 27,000 and declares the two even.  In the final episode Segyeong finds an envelope full of money in her suitcase and, assuming correctly that it’s from Jihun, puts it in his desk.  Shinae does the same.  A distraught Haeri, finally breaking away from her ‘Shinae is mine!’ ranting, tells Shinae to choose any three of her dolls to take with her, but Shinae refuses.  Haeri forces her to take her two favorites, but when Haeri returns home from school after Shinae’s left for the airport she finds the two dolls with a note from Shinae saying that she couldn’t possibly take them. Haeri’s reaction is one of anguish.  She wanted to give something to Shinae, but Shinae would take nothing from her.  The two girls pay their debts and except neither charity nor, apparently, gifts.

Finally I have to talk about the ending of the series.  Segyeong, Shinae and their now-reunited father are on their way to the airport in the pouring rain.  Segyeong doesn’t want to leave without saying goodbye to Jihun, who has been at work all night.  She goes to his office and waits, eventually sending Shinae and the father ahead so that she can wait for him.  She obviously really wants to see him, right?  She finally leaves a not and prepares to go when he arrives.  He was on his way out, to meet Hwang Jeongeum in Daejeon and presumably tell her that he wants to be with her even though she has no money.  He offers Segyeong a ride which she reluctantly accepts when he says he’s on his way out of Seoul anyway.  Segyeong correctly guesses that he’s on his way to see Jeongeum, and the two talk in a scene that is filmed in a car in the pouring rain with sound quality so bad you can barely tell what they’re saying.  She talks while he stares intently at the road, not saying much of anything.  She says that she was reluctant to leave Korea, and he asks why.  She says a couple of reasons, and then finally says that she didn’t want to leave because of him.  He stares at the road.  Then she says she’s finally happy because she’s with him, and she says she wishes she could be happy like that forever.  He says ‘what’ and she repeats that she wishes she could be happy like that forever.  He takes his eyes off the road and looks at her, and freeze frame.

This is the unspoken noble lie of the Korean drama.  Love conquers all, but it’s messy and painful and people will fight against your love.  There was a recent drama that I watched a bit of about the scion of a wealthy family who married his older brother’s secretary.  There was another one recently where seemingly everyone in a rich man’s family fell in love with a doorman’s children.  This is standard stuff.  Here though, that story wasn’t even allowed to happen.  It seems to have never occurred to Jihun that the poor housekeeper might like him.  I’m ignoring the age difference, which I understand to be substantial.  Segyeong liked Jihun but never did anything about it because she was poor and humble and not the kind of girl to go around telling people her feelings.  Jihun never really even considered Segyeong as anything other than a needy 동생 at best.  No magic love conquering all.  Love wasn’t even reciprocated.  Jihun just wordlessly stared at Segyeong, never indicating his own feelings or whether he even had any.  This is the kind of thing that you don’t really expect to see on even the best drama, and here they did it on a sitcom.